American Romances: Essays


"Everything and nothing is sacred in Rebecca Brown's essays. Tongue, word, thought, and intellect all conspire in a free language love of living history, divination, sex, solitude and amusement. She is America's only real rock n' roll schoolteacher. Lessons layered with profundity and protracted parallels. Where old world religion, Gertrude Stein and Oreo cookies co-exist in an actual and mystic world of wonder." —Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth

"If Rebecca Brown's talent for prose were any tighter, it would be a ...

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"Everything and nothing is sacred in Rebecca Brown's essays. Tongue, word, thought, and intellect all conspire in a free language love of living history, divination, sex, solitude and amusement. She is America's only real rock n' roll schoolteacher. Lessons layered with profundity and protracted parallels. Where old world religion, Gertrude Stein and Oreo cookies co-exist in an actual and mystic world of wonder." —Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth

"If Rebecca Brown's talent for prose were any tighter, it would be a lyric — to a pop standard. An homage — a menage — to America, exposing what's laid bare in a comic tragic redux. I laughed till it hurt." —Van Dyke Parks, Composer/Arranger

"Anyone who can get from the Eucharist, to a Necco Wafer, to the goo beween the Oreo wafers, to the Inquisition, to the goo between the legs of excited young women is a distant sibling of mine. She can dash and she can drift and she is not much interested in the really bad parts that might qualify as confession. She likes the float of quotidian living and I like to read the words upon which she floats." — Dave Hickey, author of Air Guitar

The impulse to tell our worst to a bunch of strangers has been fueling American self-hood for 300 years: there's a direct line from the Puritan confession narrative to today's lurid, inescapable exhibitionism. But whose stories are we telling?

This collection of mordant, poignant, and playful essays shows Rebecca Brown at the height of her imaginative and intuitive powers. A wry, incisive social and literary critique is couched in a gonzo mix of pop culture, autobiography, fiction, literary history, misremembered movie plots, and fantasy that plays with the notion of what it is to be “American.” Fantastical connections and unlikely meetings span the course of America’s cultural history in a manic remix, featuring appearances by Brian Wilson, Gertrude Stein, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Invisible Man, the Abligensian Crusade, John Wayne, Felix Mendelssohn, JFK, Shane, and God.

Rebecca Brown’s books include: The Gifts of the Body, The Last Time I Saw You, The Haunted House, Terrible Girls, and The End of Youth.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Brown's first work of nonfiction poses an irreverent challenge to American exceptionalism and the romantic premise of life, liberty, and happiness. A patchwork investigation into our passionate self-fictions and their roots in American culture and history, Brown's essays make a jazz-like assembly, riffing on sex, war, religion, slavery, abusive fathers and Abu Ghraib-attempting a super-narrative that encompasses all manner of American sins. The books strongest sections are it's more personal and sustained, following Brown's romantic idealization of her own deteriorating family, and the religious salvation she sought to escape her pain. As intriguing as her observations can be, however, Brown plays fast and loose with her subjects and doesn't always convince with her far-flung historical comparisons-the Salem witch trials and Iraqi prisoners, the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. Brown (The Gifts of the Body) tells us that her essays are romances-elastic, unconventional narratives that allow the impossible to take shape-but as capsule analyses of the American character, they largely avoid the real complexity of history and context.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The essays in American Romances cover a lot of ground: listening, faith, invisibility, extreme reading, the West. They practically read themselves, that's how much fun they are.
—Susan Salter Reynolds
Los Angeles Times
Some things, no matter how far apart, occur again the same. They happen the same again and over again. The same except for different, and forever.' Now that we are swimming in information, facts often seem more like flotsam than train tracks leading anywhere. The circle seems ever more appropriate as the shape of history.
Rebecca Brown, info-entrepreneur, can write her own history, pairing, for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Brian Wilson (who grew up in Hawthorne, Calif.). 'Hawthorne, writer from the east, and Hawthorne, suburb in the west, are twisted in a Mobius strip: the child and its evil twin, the maker and its son. The City on the Hill became the suburb in the sand.'
Out of this archaeology comes a new view of Puritanism, scarlet letters, dreams of the Founding Fathers. Snail paths intersect at junctions (matrices) formed by common names and places. Brown admits to being a nostalgic child (nostalgia as a kind of pain, 'The pain of returning returns . . . the pain of leaving what you left / and knowing what you wanted never was.')
The essays in 'American Romances' cover a lot of ground: listening, faith, invisibility, extreme reading, the West. They practically read themselves, that's how much fun they are.
—Susan Salter Reynolds
Bellingham Herald
In American Romances, Brown uses author Nathaniel Hawthorne and his work as a springboard for leaping into considerations of literary history, religion, music, pop culture, human sexuality and more. A little surprisingly, the automobile does not figure into this eclectic mix, but I'd still advise buckling your seatbelt before you take off through Brown's amazing mindscape, and holding on tight as she careens in dazzling form and at breakneck speed around ideas about work ethic, race and gender warfare, religious fanaticism, family dynamics, memory and manifest destiny.
The Stranger
Brown's voice sounds more relaxed, more confident, than ever before. Her new stories fold history, theory, memory, and outright lies into rich, articulate essays that stretch the boundaries of your brain.
—Brendan Kiley
Sixers Review
Rebecca Brown's American Romances tickles the minds of her readers, enticing their imaginations and provoking their sensibilities to follow her on journey through a course of history that explores all figures and moments iconic to the American experience. Making bold statements in drawing delightfully unexpected connections, this collection of essays conscientiously acknowledges its wild, sometimes carnivalesque perceptions and flourishes them for the reader unapologetically. With its frank curiosity and often irreverent confessions, Brown's pen produces a voice that is both refreshing and confidential - one has the distinct impression that as readers we are being offered a glimpse into thoughts and experiences that have not before been uttered, let alone written. The endnotes that culminate each chapter maintain the collection's insightful and witty humor. Drawing upon literature, film, music and history, American Romances is a work whose wide spectrum probes at the reader's senses and, as varying frequencies resonate within her audience, Brown has written a book that, in fact, Becomes more your own with every read.
—Natalie Yasmin Soto
Ted English
Ultimately, American Romances offers bold reflection on the complicated question of trying to figure out just what is and isn't American. Rebecca Brown has written a fun and powerful book that balances its insight with entertainment.
Lambda Literary Foundation
In American Romances, her new book of essays, Rebecca Brown has a voice that is full of pop references, family stories, and the fruits of a lifetime of -- in her perfect phrase - extreme reading. The voice is a hoot, and it is dead serious. This is writing with exquisite control, fully up to the task Brown takes on of playing a fierce game of beach ball with deep problems of American (and personal) history and identity.
—Susan Stinson
Jeffrey Cyphers Wright
Like cowgirls? Like flyboys? Like reading? Then you'll really like Rebecca Brown.... These essays mash autobiography with heritage in mischievous but poignant, painful prose. Imminently readable, unambiguously personal, and ultimately revelatory, each essay begins with a quote or two by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Brown traces the arc of our cultural identity from the original 'City on the Hill' to a 'suburb in the sand' (where the Beachboys lived in Hawthorne, California). Brian Wilson's bleak childhood is juxtaposed with both Hawthorne's and the author's. These high interest matrixes make for a galloping read. Coupled with an uncanny knack for finding connections, is a percussive, even mesmerizing rhythm.... We come from guilt — Brown lays bare our wounds and in doing so she kindles our hope for understanding.
The Brooklyn Rail
Library Journal

In this anomalous collection of eight essays, Brown (The Gifts of the Body) juxtaposes her personal history with classic literature and movies. In "A Child of Her Time," she reminisces about the abundance of oranges when she was growing up in Jacksonville, FL, in the 1960s and how it contrasts with the children in books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who are thrilled to receive the fruit as Christmas presents. "Extreme Readings" explains how Brown identified with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as she traveled on a bus to a summer bible camp. Brown aligns the movie version of Shane with the day when her father and mother broke up their marriage. Each essay is followed by extensive notes revealing additional thoughts, explanations, and source material. VERDICT This whimsical flight of imagination shows how books and reading have influenced the author's life. Recommended for creative writing students and aspiring writers.—Joyce Sparrow, JWB Children's Svcs. Council, Clearwater, FL

—Joyce Sparrow
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780872864986
  • Publisher: City Lights Books
  • Publication date: 6/1/2009
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,211,766
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebecca Brown is the author of a dozen books of prose including THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU, THE END OF YOUTH, THE DOGS, THE TERRIBLE GIRLS (City Lights) and THE GIFTS OF THE BODY (HarperCollins). She recently co-edited, with Mary Jane Knecht, an anthology of writers' responses to work at the Frye Art Museum.

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Table of Contents

Hawthorne 9

A Child of Her Time 31

The Priests 51

God without Words 67

Extreme Reading 83

Invisible 97

MyWestern 131

Young Goodman Brown: A Gloss 157

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